It is my first time meeting singer, songwriter and writer, Dewi Lestari, and our chance meeting could have only happened because I took up the invitation speak at the Singapore Writers Festival’s Malay leg. I have listened to her songs, read 1 of her books which I had bought in Jakarta in 2008, and have watched one of the movies that she wrote, ‘Perahu Kertas’. But only upon having sat next to her, and listen to her speak about her craft, that I knew I’m a true fan. She spoke of her poetic influences and I wasn’t the least bit shy to admit the lack of appreciation towards poetry and spoken word in Singapore. When asked by the moderator, Oniatta Affendi, could music be a distraction when lyrics are poetry in itself; I said this – “On Indonesian television, on Hari Raya, on their Independence Day, at concerts, it is not unfamiliar to have a poetry recital on stage, true?” Dee, as she affectionately calls herself, nods. Afterwards, a kind soul in the audience asked if one requires to be powerful in the Malay language to be able to write lyrics, or can anyone with a flair for words get away with writing songs? I say, kind soul, because I was so confident to answer it as though she came purely to pick my brains.
I replied, “In Singapore, the artiste and the creative individual, be it, songwriter, composer, or arranger, is not identified as different people. It is known to all as one person. Therefore, it is the singer of the song who is seen as creative if the song enlightens you, artistic if the song touches you exactly where it intended to, and automatically too, the artiste is blamed for any errors in language. If the artiste is the songwriter is the composer is the storyteller, the flag that he bears is one that is carefully stitched, and any mistake you hear in the song is not intended. (Going off topic but remained cool to not look awkward, exhale!) Yes, you need to speak well, in order to write (a song) well.”
Dewi was asked if songwriting can be forced. She said “There are some producers who can sit down in the studio, on the piano and work on 2 songs a day, churning out hits for random artistes everytime they come and challenge them with an offer. But I can’t do that. It comes to me, at those unknowing, special times, in the shower, when I’m alone, and a line comes with its melody strikes me, like a lightning!” She took the words right out of my mouth, and there I was, with my mouth wide open, so amazed at her choice of words. Like a strike of lightning, too, I was made to understand this vast unexplored world of Malay-language literature in this short 1 hour forum about “effective songwriting through the decades” from Cikgu Yusnor Ef’s catalogue of 400 since 1947, and Dewi’s 2 song per year repertoire. It made me feel small and humble. At the closing, I sang lines from my own favourite song, “Hanya Menari”, and later in the day, Dewi had tweeted her fondness for my lyrics. The feeling is magical. Is that how some fans feel when I tweet to them? Heh.
Only because I read as a child, as a teenager, as a young man, that I know all the things I today and I write the way I do. Thanks for the inspiration, Dee!
Thank you to Firda, National Museum of Singapore and the Singapore Writers Festival for having me!